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School funding depends on student attendance. How do you measure that in the middle of a pandemic?

Natalia Alamdari
Delaware News Journal

Two months into the school year, students are learning from a mix of places. Some remain exclusively online, while others are in school as more districts transition to hybrid learning. 

In a state where the bulk of school funding is dependent on attendance and who’s physically present in school, how is that being measured this year? And how could COVID-19 affect school attendance? 

In a normal year, public schools take part in the annual “unit count” – a two-week span at the end of September when schools report attendance numbers to the state. So long as a student is present during those 10 days, they count toward the unit count. 

Those student numbers are then calculated into units, which determine the number of teachers the state will fund for the school that year. 

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Since most districts delayed their start to the year, the state also delayed the unit count. This year, the count started Nov. 2 and lasts until Friday, Nov. 13, measuring attendance of students “regardless of the learning location,” according to the Department of Education. 

Official attendance numbers should be certified Dec. 14.

“It is a very important part of how you function as a district,” said Jeffrey Menzer, superintendent of Colonial School District. “Your enrollment generates your revenue, which generates your ability to put services and staff in front of students.” 

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has added challenges to how schools conduct the unit count, and opened up the possibility of an undercount. Teachers are having to juggle attendance for both in-person and virtual students.

Schools relying on groups of students attending school on alternating days have them taking part in both in-person and virtual learning. And many schools have students who haven’t logged on at all. 

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“In a normal setting, I see Tommy walk through the building every single day,” said Lindsay Lewis, education associate with the Department of Education. “Now, I need to find a way to evaluate whether Tommy is actually ‘here’ with us learning.” 

In-person class at EastSide Charter School on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.

It’s normal for districts to deal with some level of chronic absenteeism during an in-person school year, said Mark Holodick, senior leadership specialist at the University of Delaware’s Delaware Academy for School Leadership. COVID-19 has taken those challenges into the virtual world and upped the stakes, the former Brandywine superintendent said.

“Because of COVID and the health risks involved in physically trying to track students down, it’s more difficult and more stressful,” Holodick said. 

Since March, teachers have reported issues with student engagement. Some have lists of students who rarely, if ever, log on to Zoom lessons. Schools have even resorted to home visits to figure out how they can help families engage in online learning. 

In a presentation to parents in the Christina School District, Superintendent Dan Shelton noted that from Sept. 8 to Oct. 16, 13% of students districtwide never logged into Schoology, the learning platform most students in the state use to access and turn in assignments. 

During the final week of that time frame, 19% of students didn’t log on, and 25% logged on less than two days of the week. That comes despite teacher efforts.

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“You can see that over time, the numbers haven’t gotten much better,” Shelton told parents. “In some cases, they actually got worse.” 

The state’s delayed unit count came right as districts made the transition to hybrid learning.

“I have to provide a different learning environment for those that are not engaged currently,” Shelton said. “As a public school, it is our duty to make sure we engage all of our students.” 

In Colonial, average attendance rates range anywhere from 75% to 95% depending on the school, Superintendent Jeffrey Menzer said. Ideally, average daily attendance would be closer to 94% to 96%, he said. 

As school districts planned for the start of the year, there was concern that attendance struggles due to COVID-19 and virtual learning would lead to a lower-than-normal enrollment count, and dips in the funding connected to those numbers, said Mike Jackson, director of the state Office of Management and Budget. 

While an undercount is possible, there are financial safeguards in place to avoid drastic staffing changes, he said. 

The unit count determines funding for the current school year. But every year, school districts have to make hiring decisions prior to the initial count. 

Because of this, school districts also turn in enrollment estimates every spring. Schools are guaranteed to receive funding for at least 98% of that spring estimate. 

“A school district always has a safety net on how much funding they can lose,” Jackson said.

“We’re fortunate that that is part of the process,” Menzer said. “That does help navigate the staffing for this year and looking to the future in terms of teachers.” 

Still, questions remain about what COVID-19 could mean for school funding in the long term, Holodick said. How will it affect statewide enrollment numbers? Will Delaware public school enrollment decrease? 

“I would expect that you’re going to see, over the course of the next year or so, less consistency and more volatility in regard to the ebbs and flows,” Holodick said. “I don’t think it will be severe, but it will be up and down.” 

The changes could come in many ways. Some students can’t be reached. Others have transferred to private schools, or their families have decided to home school. 

“It’s a concern that is on the minds of all,” Holodick said. Especially “those more newly hired teachers, those with less tenure who would be more vulnerable to cuts. With that said, I think it’s too early to anticipate that that’s what’s going to happen.” 

Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or nalamdari@delawareonline.com.